Under Construction

"I know you think that you came here to add to your current knowledge base and increase your understanding, but each of you are coming with misconceptions and false understanding. We must first demolish that which is inaccurate, rebuild a solid foundation and then we can build."

I doubt I was the only student that was taken aback when the professor pretty much said that we were all coming to the table with very little to offer. We were, after all, beginning our time at graduate school and were ready to glean from our professors and programs to build on our experience and knowledge. It was a bit defeating to hear that building was in the plan, but not soon.

I was reminded of this concept at a recent Thistle Farm conference during a conversation with one of the coordinators.A woman, we will call "Melissa", had spent years on the street selling herself to men and using drugs and alcohol to mask the pain before joining the Thistle Farm program. She spent two years there and had taken on new levels of responsibility until she became their marketing director. A woman who was at the conference to learn more about setting up a similar home in another city raised the question of whether it is better for women to go through the program with their children or not. She very strongly believed that the best thing for a child is to be with his/her mother. Melissa pondered for a moment, but obviously had other thoughts on the subject. She talked about how difficult it was to completely change both behaviors and appearances on the outside and ideas and beliefs on the inside. From her experience, going through that process left very little energy for anyone else.

If you think in terms of buildings and homes, it's like starting with a home that has structural issues, water damage and a sagging roof. You can put in new walls, paint them and clean the floors, but it's not enough to repair the cosmetic issues in the house, the deeper issues must be addressed and that which is rotten must be removed. When a woman has been told for years that she is worthless, that idea seeps into her soul, she begins to believe it and the truth that she is valuable dissipates. You can take that woman, clean her up and put her in a new outfit, but that does not change her perception of her own worth.

It's easy to talk about the restoration process for women rescued from sexual exploitation, but the process is a deeper and more painful transformation than we might expect. It is our job, for those of us in the business of helping women, to provide a safe place, an understanding and encouraging environment, truth about her value and time for demolition of the old and the reconstruction of the new.